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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


I found this… whale barnacles

By Mark Carnall, on 12 October 2012

I found this… is a new mini-installation by the entrance to the Museum. In each of the six cabinets one member of our team has selected one object which they have uncovered something new about. Today…

This specimen was in a box labelled ‘misc’- the kind of box that all curators fear. The old label was hard to read and it wasn’t immediately obvious what it was. I had to resort to some old school comparative anatomy and deduction to identify it much like the scenario with this mysterious specimen.

Identifying the tubes seemed like a good starting point. Where else do we get tubes? Tube worms, tracheas, corals, sponges, sea whips, traces of burrowing animals and some bones. Most of those could be counted out straight away as the tubes here are straight, hollow, made of a hard material and appear to be grown in segments. The brown mass that these tubes are embedded in was a clue to the identity of this specimen once I determined that it was the original substrate in which these organisms was embedded and not a rather unattractive way of displaying them or a special preparation for research (you can never be sure with the Grant collection).

Not hard enough to be wood or stone and resembling cured meat or jerky, it appeared that the substrate was organic so I started looking for organisms that are parasitic or otherwise embed themselves in other animals. The immediate thought was that these were whale barnacles but the whale barnacles that most naturalists would be familiar with are these Coronula barrel type barnacles and they don’t go through the skin with these long tube like structures. After a bit more research it turns out that these specimens were of the genus Tubicinella, barnacles that attached themselves to turtles as well as whales and the brown stuff is (most likely) whale blubber, presumably, from the skin of a long suffering whale.

So the research into this specimen not only added a new and odd genus of barnacle to the museum collection but also this specimen is a lovely example of larger animals providing an environment for smaller ones.

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